When Billy Whipple was learning carpentry as a young man in New England, he got some strange advice about from a veteran carpenter.
“He had his old beliefs that holes [in houses] were good; they got you fresh air,” he says. “Now we’re so sophisticated that we manage the air.”
Managing air is one of the things Whipple is doing at a construction site in East Austin. As vice president of construction for Habitat for Humanity Austin, he’s helping build houses that are close to airtight.
The walls are are being built with "more insulation, so that’s going to give us a thicker sweater around the house,” he says.
The bottom of a wall, where it meets the foundation, is sealed up with extra material “to make sure that air doesn’t sneak in and out of there.”
The plan is to make the house so well-insulated that all the electricity required by its tenants can be supplied by the solar panels that will sit on its specially designed roof.
It’s a type of building called “net zero,” because it will pull “net zero” electricity off the grid. That makes it environmentally sustainable and vastly more affordable to live in. Net-zero homes are far more expensive to build, so they’re usually available only to people with a lot of money.
Not these homes.
“It might be the first time anybody really in Austin has tried to do a net-zero project that’s 100 percent affordable,” says Mark Rogers, executive director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp.
GNDC is the housing nonprofit that owns this development. With help from the city, Habitat for Humanity and others, his group is making 60 net-zero homes available to longtime East Austinites who might otherwise be pushed out by gentrification.
“So this is kind of like a little island in an ocean of displacement that’s happening," Rogers says, "and that, to me, is the best story.”
Right now, there are a lot of things stopping net-zero homes from going up everywhere. For one thing, local utilities lose money and need to re-work their electric grids when a lot of houses start producing electricity instead of buying it from the grid.
“We aren’t seeing those types of problems here yet. We only have about 1 1/2 to 2 percent of our customers with solar,” says Danielle Murray, manager of solar energy services with Austin energy’s Solar. But, she says, “It's something we're thinking about and watching for and planning for.”
Another big challenge is construction costs. It’s something that Habitat for Humanity tries to keep down by using volunteer labor.
One of the volunteers is Steve Quiroz, a lifelong East Austinite and an experienced builder.
“I have been doing this since I was 16,” he laughs.
Quiroz will also be moving into this house with his wife, Elida, when it's done.
The couple says they can’t wait to settle in, and they can’t wait to generate their own electricity.
“Every time I see my electric bill, I say, 'Well, this is going to change,” Quiroz says. “It’s going to get better.”